This short, elegiac novel is the latest in Berry’s Port William series.
Port William is a fictional town in rural Kentucky. Narrator Andy Catlett is looking back, 60 years later, at his nine-year-old self enjoying his “last year of innocence” before the shocking summer of 1944 (chronicled in A World Lost, 1996). His memories encompass three days between Christmas and New Year’s in 1943, when Andy embarks on his first journey alone, a ten-mile bus ride from his home in Hargrave to Port William, where both sets of grandparents live. He is met by his paternal grandfather Marce, his hired hand Dick Watson, who is black, and their mules and wagon. (Andy longs for his own mule and harness.) Marce, a tobacco farmer no longer active himself, has four employees. The Catletts do not have electricity, unlike Andy’s other grandparents, the Feltners, who also own a car. The visit is uneventful. Andy is fed handsomely in both homes, despite wartime rationing. At Granddaddy Feltner’s, he helps transform the tobacco barn into a sheep barn. Though the story is short on events, it is long on feeling. It amounts to an outpouring of gratitude (the novel’s transcendent emotion) for the loving kindness he was shown, and the chance to have known a simpler era before it disappeared. These are good people living hard lives, but the group portrait is not saccharine. One of Grandpa Catlett’s hands is a menacing loner. No excuses are made for the racism of the time, in which, as Andy will come to understand, all white people were “complicit.” Memories hark back to the Civil War, “immediate as an odor.” Nevertheless, the vanished Port William glows, a town content to be itself, unacquainted with modern restlessness.
An eloquent distillation of Berry’s favorite themes: the importance of family, community and respect for the land.